Business shifts from supplier to manufacturer

These are boom times for Martin Interconnect Services, a Wichita maker of wire harnesses for a variety of manufacturers. And its success seems to be accelerating: Company sales grew more than 20 percent in the year ending in September and were 32 percent higher in the quarter ending in December.

"And this next quarter will go up over 30 percent," said president Sharon Martin.

The company moved into a new location at 1801 S. Mead in June, with the help of Sedgwick County. It has promised to create 37 jobs and invest $615,000 over the next five years.

The future looks so bright that the Martins — parents Tom and Sharon, and sons and vice presidents Todd and Adam — seem a little overwhelmed, in a good way.

During an interview this week, Todd was pulled away by a call on his cell phone. A customer, he said with a wry laugh, was upping its production rate from 16 units a week to 20 and they were just going to have to figure out how to fit it in.

The company cuts, finishes and solders electrical wire into the wiring bundles that power the lights, gauges and motors on vehicles and other equipment.

It supplies companies making fire trucks, ambulances, trash trucks, mobile drill rigs, automobiles, buses, boats, recreational vehicles and motorcycles.

The company started out as a supplier to local manufacturers but is seeing its recent growth come from diversification and nationalization.

"During a down economy, businesses are looking for ways to cut costs," Adam said. "That's when they review their vendors. We're a low-cost, high-quality supplier."

Optima, Big Dog

Tom and Sharon Martin bought Wichita's Radio Supply Co., a supplier of electric components for manufacturers and the public, in 1985. The business was based at their old location at 131 S. Laura, near Douglas and Washington.

Business was fine, but in the '90s they sensed that distributors were a dying breed. Manufacturers could order parts over the Internet, so when Todd came in one day and suggested they start looking into supplying their own wire harnesses, Tom and Sharon eventually went along.

A small space was cleared in the corner of the warehouse, and three employees started to build harnesses.

Soon after, customer Chance Coach, a Wichita-based maker of buses, called them and said it was three weeks behind on production and needed wire harnesses.

"We said give us a couple weeks, and they said, 'You don't understand, we need these now,' " Todd said.

The Martins learned about the business of harness building on the fly, sometimes to the dismay of the elder Martins.

"We lost a ton of money on that in the first year," Todd said, "and they were like, 'What have you gotten us into?' "

Another early customer was Sheldon Coleman Jr., who was building high-end custom motorcycles in a shed down the street.

"We were supplying Big Dog since before it was Big Dog," Adam said.

Martin Interconnect rode orders from those two fast-growing companies through the late '90s and halfway into the next decade. But 2006 proved a turning point. Optima Bus, successor to Chance Coach, was sold and a year later was shut down. Big Dog Motorcycles started a long sales decline.

But for Martin Interconnect, the story is much more cheerful. Even as it was seeing declining sales from those two customers, it picked up new, larger out-of-town customers.

It got a call from a former executive of a former customer. This executive worked at a company building fire trucks and wanted a wire harness. Then he ordered more wire harnesses. Then a sister company called and wanted a quote on wire harnesses.

Martin Interconnect doesn't even have a formal sales force anymore. Most of its calls are from word of mouth.

"Our name just pops up; it's weird," Todd said. "Engineers talk a lot, I guess."

High quality, low cost

The Martins continue to transform the business from a job shop into an assembly line — something inherently difficult because it builds as many as 3,000 different harness designs, often on irregular schedules, and must accommodate manufacturers' design changes in the middle of runs.

Some of the plant's 50 workers hunch over machines that crimp or strip or solder wires into bundles. Others lean over large sheets of plywood bearing a full-size layout of harness blueprints, arranging wires and attaching components. Every harness is tested — simple ones can take eight minutes, while complex ones can take 90 minutes to test and fix.

Jobs at the plant start at minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, Sharon Martin said, and it seeks employees who have a hard time finding work elsewhere: ex-inmates, people on state assistance, those who don't speak English.

The future

The immediate future is all about continuing to execute as orders come in, Adam said.

Longer-term, he said, the company is introducing lean production techniques into the plant. This means simplifying and clarifying work processes, such as using pictures of parts instead of numbers to reduce mistakes and color-coding storage receptacles. Finding ways to squeeze more production out of existing space and work force is critical for growth, he said.

That's because it is possible the company will see its business double overnight, based on some of the work it is bidding on, Adam said.

"There is no reason that we're not going to grow," he said.